Pseudoscience and vaccine denialism (updated)

We frequently use the term “pseudoscience” to describe the ideology of certain groups:  antivaccinationists, evolution deniers (creationists), global warming deniers, HIV/AIDS denialism, and almost anything in the areas of parapsychology, alternative medicine, and sasquatch. The science denialists (broadly defined as any group who rejects the scientific consensus on any subject without valid scientific support) always seem to be insulted by the word “pseudoscience”, even though the name is given to them both as a pejorative, but also because its based on their non-scientific, but scientific-sounding method of providing information.

In fact, there are several hallmarks that indicate to most educated individuals as to what is or is not pseudoscience. Real science is a systematic and rational method to organize and analyze “knowledge” into testable explanations and predictions. Sometimes, it appears that the anti-science crowd believes that science is just a word, not a philosophy which is organized as the scientific method. It isn’t some magical system that only smart people in secret ivory towers practice. The scientific method is simply a set of logical steps:

  1. Formulate a question: Based on observations of the natural world. Maybe you notice that sky is blue, and you ask “why is the sky blue?” Or “how do I design a vaccine to encourage the immune system to prevent a virus from causing a disease?” Of course, the questions can become much more complex as we make more detailed observations of the our world.
  2. Hypothesis: An hypothesis is a conjecture, based on the knowledge obtained while formulating the question, that may explain the observed behavior of a part of our universe. The hypothesis may be broad or very narrow. One could make a hypothesis that life can evolve on many planets across the universe. Or one could make a hypothesis that a drug can cure a disease in a small population of individuals. A proper hypothesis must include a null hypothesis, that is, the scientist must be willing to test that the null hypothesis is also false (a sort of double negative). This null hypothesis is that the new vaccine does nothing and that any disease prevention are due to chance effects. Researchers must also show that the null hypothesis is false. A scientific hypothesis must be falsifiable, meaning that one can identify a possible outcome of an experiment that conflicts with predictions deduced from the hypothesis; otherwise, it cannot be meaningfully tested. This all sounds complicated, but digested down to its simplest form, it means that a scientist is always willing to attempt to prove that the hypothesis is wrong
  3. Prediction: Once a hypothesis is developed, then the a prediction (or more than one prediction) is made based on the hypothesis. For example, if a vaccine is supposed to prevent a disease, then the prediction is made that it prevents some some amount of the disease above what would be assumed just by random chance. For example, without the vaccine it might be predicted that only 10% of individuals might be immune to the disease, but with the vaccine, it would be predicted that 85% would be immune. In all fields of science, the hypothesis leads to predictions which are different than what would be found simply by coincidence or randomness. Also, the hypothesis must be powerful enough to create more accurate predictions than alternative hypotheses.
  4. Test: This is the conducting of experiments or investigations to determine whether the real world behaves as predicted by the hypotheses. These experiments are observations which will agree with or conflict with the predictions; if they agree, then the confidence in the hypothesis will increase. On the other hand, if there is conflict, the confidence will, of course, decrease. Experiments should be designed to minimize possible errors, especially through the use of appropriate scientific controls. Medical and drug experiments utilize double-blind clinical trials to limit confirmation bias, a tendency towards confirmation of the hypothesis under study. 
  5. Analysis: This involves determining what the results of the experiment show and deciding on the next actions to take. The predictions of the hypothesis are compared to those of the null hypothesis, to determine which is better able to explain the data. In cases where an experiment is repeated many times, a statistical analysis such as a chi-squared test may be required. If the evidence has falsified the hypothesis, a new hypothesis is required; if the experiment supports the hypothesis but the evidence is not strong enough for high confidence, other predictions from the hypothesis must be tested. Once a hypothesis is strongly supported by evidence, a new question can be asked to provide further insight on the same topic. Evidence from other scientists and one’s own experience can be incorporated at any stage in the process. Many iterations may be required to gather sufficient evidence to answer a question with confidence, or to build up many answers to highly specific questions in order to answer a single broader question. Continue reading “Pseudoscience and vaccine denialism (updated)”

Evidence for evolution–rapid human evolution

One of the most amusing (amongst so many) from the evolution denialist crowd, lead by Ken Ham and his creationist zombies, is that evolution has never been observed.  According to Answers in Genesis

Macroevolution is a term used by evolutionists to describe the alleged, unobservable change of one kind of organism to another kind by natural selection acting on the accumulation of mutations over vast periods of time.

If you take a genetics course in any reasonable university (not one run by anti-evolutionists), you use fruit flies (Drosophila) to select for or against certain features, evolving a population rather quickly.  Some anti-evolutions say that this is “microevolution,” which to a scientist is no different than “macroevolution.”  The problem with the evolution denialist viewpoint is that fruit flies have a very short lifespan, so generations upon generations can be studied over a few weeks or months.  If humans lived only 2 days, then we could observe evolution in humans. Continue reading “Evidence for evolution–rapid human evolution”

Creationism legislation–Tennessee Monkey Bill (Update 4)

[pullquote]If you’re looking for a cure for your cancer, don’t look to evolution-deniers for hope. As for me, I give thanks to Darwin and the researchers who have stood on his shoulders.–Leslie Brunetta[/pullquote]

A quick update on Tennessee’s “Monkey Bill”, which is a Republican-led anti-evolution and global warming denying bill.  The bill, HB 368, was  sent to Governor Bill Haslam this week for consideration.  Gov. Haslam has until April 9 2012 to either sign it, allow it to become law without his signature or veto it.  The bill encourages teachers to present the “scientific strengths and scientific weaknesses” in topics such as “biological evolution, the chemical origins of life (known as abiogenesis), global warming and human cloning.”  The scientific weaknesses are nearly nonexistent, except in the mind of the science denialists that inhabit the Republican Party, particularly in the South.

Continue reading “Creationism legislation–Tennessee Monkey Bill (Update 4)”

Pseudoscience and the anti-vaccine lunacy

We frequently use the term “pseudoscience” to describe the ideology of certain groups:  anti-vaccinationists, evolution deniers (creationists), global warming deniers, and almost anything in the areas of parapsychology, alternative medicine, and sasquatch.  The science denialists (broadly defined as any group who rejects the scientific consensus on any subject without valid scientific support) always seem to be insulted by the word “pseudoscience” as if it’s a pejorative without foundation. Continue reading “Pseudoscience and the anti-vaccine lunacy”

Huffington Post and quote mining–one more reason to ignore them

The Huffington Post published an article recently entitled, Science and religion quotes: what the world’s greatest scientists say about God.  I rarely read HuffPo, despite my having a similar political point-of-view, because of what I perceive to be a high number of anti-science articles.  In this case, HuffPo tries to show how some of the great scientists were actually deeply spiritual if not religious.  Using quotes as evidence for a history or biography of an individual is pathetic and disingenuous, especially if taken out of context.  It would be as if we tried to describe Los Angeles based on a snapshot of one house in San Pedro. Continue reading “Huffington Post and quote mining–one more reason to ignore them”

Anti-evolution bills put healthcare at risk

My Turn: The Darwin connection | Concord Monitor.

While researching some points for my article on intelligent design, I stumbled onto a poignant and pointed article written by Leslie Brunetta, a New Hampshire science author  who has been diagnosed with breast cancer.  She wrote the interesting (and very readable) book entitled, “Spider Silk: Evolution and 400 Million Years of Spinning, Waiting, Snagging, and Mating.”

Her thesis is that these anti-evolution bills in various state legislatures are a danger to her health, and by inference, the health of all Americans.

Essentially, she states that in the 1960’s, breast cancer was basically a death sentence, whereas today, the 5 year survivability for a woman diagnosed with breast cancer is over 80%.  Partially, the rate has risen because of better and earlier diagnosis, but mainly it is a result of highly effective treatments.

What does evolution have to do with this?  Plenty.  At even the most basic level, the discovery of DNA, which is essential to understanding any of the 200 different cancers, was driven by the need to uncover the basis of genetics and heritability of genes.  Would we have discovered the DNA molecule if we weren’t driven by the desire to understand the foundation of evolution?  Probably not.

Furthermore, Ms. Brunetta posits that everything from understanding the differences between cancer and normal genes to family history all depends upon a scientific foundation of evolution.  She states that now we have genetic tests (arising from our knowledge of evolution) that can help determine which treatments are best for certain types of breast cancer, allowing some patients to forego chemotherapy.

What if we didn’t understand evolution?  We wouldn’t understand that viruses evolve quickly in a population, so we have to adjust vaccination antigens.  We wouldn’t understand how bacteria evolve in response to antibiotics.  We wouldn’t understand the range of genetic diseases that afflict individuals.  I could write for hours on everything in medicine (and just medicine) that depends on an appreciation, and acceptance, of the theory of evolution.  I wonder what the creationists would say if we were to refuse them all procedures and techniques that use evolution (well, I know what the answer would be, that a supernatural being guided the research or something similar).  Of course, the Hippocratic Oath would prevent physicians from implementing this policy.

I’ve contended that the anti-science (anti-evolution) push on the right wing is bad for the security and economy of the country.  Let me add in healthcare to the consequences of this desire to push religious teaching in public schools.

Addendum:  Ms Brunetta points out something about Charles Darwin that is always forgotten but is critical.  He theorized evolution and natural selection with no knowledge of genetics and DNA (the cause of genetic drift).  Amazing leap of intuition on his part.

Rosa Rubicondior: Where Creationists Get Confused.

Rosa Rubicondior: Where Creationists Get Confused..

Modern Tree of Life

Creationists utilize numerous logical fallacies to either “disprove” evolution (using rhetoric and religious text) or to “prove” creationism.  Usually, however, they stick with trying to showing how evolution is wrong, thereby, implying that creationism is correct.  (I’m going to set aside the fallacy that by simply disproving evolution one proves creationism, you still have to provide evidence for creationism itself.)

I could list them all from “it’s only a theory”, which ignores the fact that a scientific theory stands at the top of hierarchy of scientific thought, essentially considered a fact, to Charles Darwin renouncing evolution on his deathbed, which he didn’t.  One of my favorites is the wholesale misunderstanding (either intentionally or through complete ignorance of science) of taxonomy.  As Rosa Rubicondior states:

Creationists, either disingenuously, or because of genuine ignorance, seem to have missed the whole point of taxonomy, so they continually make idiotic mistakes which, even though they might imagine them to be valid arguments against evolution, are recognised by those who understand the subject as evidence only of their ignorance. And, with so much information readily and freely available, this ignorance can ONLY be either deliberate or feigned. No one remotely interested in the subject has any excuse for their level of ignorance.

If any has ever heard the creationist meme of “if man evolved from apes, then why are there apes still around,” then you would understand the statement above.  Simply put, man evolved from a primate common ancestor (which lead to all the great apes, including chimpanzees and gorillas) about 4-8 million years ago.  The common ancestor is not around, but human primate relatives do.  In biological terms, the divergence into the various great apes (Family Hominidae) is quite recent.  The evidence is not based on supposition and guesswork, there are vast amounts of scientific literature supporting this family tree.

I find these types of arguments from creationists show a complete lack of knowledge of biological sciences, except at the most superficial level.  If one looks at the tree of life as a bunch of endpoints without understanding how the tree is built.  Of course, if they read these posts from Rosa Rubicondior and others, they would understand it.  But I guess I’ll have to agree with Rosa:

Even more unforgivable are those who assiduously maintain their own ignorance by refusing to read anything, like this blog, which might cause them to abandon their cherished beliefs, for these are the people who are quite deliberately and consciously fooling themselves into believing what they know to be false.  These will be the ones who are constantly asking what they like to think are the ‘killer knock-down’ questions of biologists and who then ignore the answers and ask the same questions again next week.  You only need to read their sanctimonious condescension and pretence to have greater knowledge than the scientists who spend years learning and researching the subject, to see what they are getting out of their intellectual dishonesty.

I wish there were creationists who actually had a scientific background (and there are a few), because the debate is just dull with those who are not.  Their knowledge of science is so lacking that I wonder if they consider how much evolutionary science is built into the medical care they receive.  Of course, I guess that’s why faith healing exists.